Suzanne Ciani: Waltzing with the Buchla

Back in April, Jasmin Hoek had the pleasure of sitting down with Suzanne Ciani for a one-to-one. A month later, the groundbreaking electronic composer went on to become the first-ever female recipient of the Moog Innovation Award. Seven Waves – Suzanne’s debut album, may have been conceived back in 1979, but its title seems ever so significant today as we bear witness to the undulating waves generated by her revolutionary work over the years. From the sexy voice in Xenon pinball machines to the pop-fizz of a Coca-Cola can, to Hollywood movie scores and Grammy-nominated compositions, Suzanne Ciani has been able to captivate a different audience with every passing decade. As yet another wave sweeps up this year for the “diva of the diode”, let’s take a moment to enjoy this interview from April.

If there is one person that comes to mind as having pioneered sounds from beyond, it is Suzanne Ciani. When I heard she was coming to Amsterdam to perform at the World Minimal Music Festival I knew I had to see her, and if possible, speak with this fascinating artist. A couple of weeks later I found myself right smack in the middle of a musical journey through space with Suzanne at the helm of her notorious Buchla synth. On a screen behind her, the audience was treated to a close-up of Suzanne’s hands working with the setup from her side of the machinery. Simultaneously, these live Go-Pro images were layered over some brightly colored visuals that brought forth memories of the ocean, and at times outer space.

Ironically, the Buchla was one of the most old-school hardware I had ever laid eyes on. Likewise, some of the pieces performed today by Suzanne were produced over 40 years ago. Still, one way or other, through the sound of the Buchla, where one could literally hear the soft click of every button being pressed, she nevertheless delivered the most impressive live set I had ever seen. More than just modern or experimental; it felt like Suzanne was a century ahead of us all. I couldn’t wrap my head around how her music could sound so futuristic, yet contemporary, at the same time also knowing that the pieces she performed were possibly twice my own age.

After Suzanne’s performance, I sat down with her outside the Muziekgebouw to talk about the Buchla, timelessness, her comeback, and what it is like for women in the electronic music industry.

Photo from the new biopic A Life In Waves, a documentary that explores the life of Suzanne Ciani.
It was challenging because nobody understood it back then.

I was very impressed with how futuristic your performance felt, even though some of your material was produced decades ago. What is it about your music that makes it so timeless?

I’m using sequences and techniques that I developed in the early 70s that are just as satisfying to me today as they were back then. I come from a classical background, and in classical music we don’t have the idea that music comes and goes. We think of it as something that is timeless and endures, rather than something that is subject to passing trends. We do consider technology as something that changes, but for us the concepts of technology don’t change. Don Buchla’s designs are timeless, because he simply designed a way for musicians to interact with the machine. Those ways are now implemented in different technologies, but he really analyzed the important aspects of being able to control the machine and designed that. He was ahead of his time.

Did your own way of using the Buchla change over time?

In some very subtle ways it has, because the machines are different. The new machine is a hybrid and it has digital aspects. It has a memory, but I don’t use a lot of memory, just for a few things. Honestly, I had more capacity in the earlier system than I do in this one. On the other hand, my earlier system was very, very big. Now I’m trying to keep it small and portable, but I do believe in actually playing the modular than using the memory; it gives me many more options.

In the early days the most difficult thing in performance was how you got from one situation to the next one. You had to choreograph your movements: you’d first move this cable, then you move that cable, and you turn this knob, and then that, eventually getting to the new area you want to go to. Now, it is more like hitting the next memory that will repatch and reroute everything. That has its own issues; you don’t want it to sound interruptive, so you have to design the transitions. The transitions are always tricky.

The Buchla itself is actually quite impossible to work with. I can’t count on the instrument; it breaks and it can’t be tuned. Many times it just gives me a zero; it won’t tune or it won’t do anything at all. Now, I’ve altered my approach to limit the problems and the risks of the machine, for example using less memory on the newer model. If you use the memory and everything is out of tune, you need to fix it and that takes more time than playing with something as a starting point and doing it all from there.

That almost sounds as if it has become more “live”, more in the moment.

Yes exactly, that is what’s so great about it. It’s like jazz, even though I don’t play jazz… the piano is in the moment too, but the Buchla is more so from both a performance and composition standpoint.

Is there a specific feeling or concept that you try to get across to the audience in your performances?

There is some form; I always start easy with the ocean. Then I’d go to a specific other thing, and then eventually to the “anything goes” stage. Honestly, it also depends on the machine.

We love machines, because they do what we tell them to. However, this machine doesn’t. It is so unpredictable, it drives me mad. It is not consistent at all, so I never know what is going to happen. But I like that. I like being on the edge. You have to go with what’s there and what the machine gives you, but that’s also why playing the Buchla is exhausting. You have to keep thinking ahead on what to do next. For myself, I have to be very relaxed, as I constantly have to listen. I have some ideas about what I can do, but I can’t get stuck. I need to go with the flow of that moment, and see what I enjoy at that point. You always get to a point where it just sounds good, and then you stay there for a short while.

Is there a big difference between your own experience of producing a specific piece vs. doing a live performance?

It’s completely different. If you look at it in terms of art, it’s like an action painting, a certain abstract gesture, and that is what playing the Buchla is. The thought-out orchestrated pieces ask for a different approach. I find them both wonderful. The Buchla is fun, but it’s probably more interesting to experience it live. Would you want to listen to that day in and day out, every day for the next 50 years? Maybe not. It’s a different experience when you are recording something very purposefully; you are making it to last… kind of. Composition is something that you plan, but performance happens, and then it’s done.

I was wondering if you still have some of these older Buchlas with you?

No. One of my older systems was in a shop for two years in Canada, with a guy that does a lot of the Buchla repairs, but he told me it couldn’t be fixed anymore. Then another guy approached me and told me he owned a museum in Calgary, Canada, with different electronic music instruments there. He even took me on a tour through the museum, suggesting that I leave my old Buchla there. I thought it was a great idea, because I really care about it, and I want it people to be able to see that performance system. So I sold it to the museum. However, I found out later that it never made it to the museum. This guy had simply sold everything off! I found that out when I was in Philadelphia last week. A man coming to my concert wrote to tell me he had bought something of mine: an empty Buchla case. He said that even though he was quite sad that the case was empty, he’d paid 15,000 dollars for the empty case. So I asked where he’d bought it, and it was the same guy from Calgary. I can’t tell you how awful it is to see my system like this; the wires hanging out, the modulars gone, and the empty case. The lack of integrity; that is also what happened to Don Buchla’s company when he sold it. He didn’t know he was selling everything he’d ever done. It is just this field of business; it has a very cloak-and-dagger dimension.

You were a pioneering musician with a classical background attempting something challenging. How was it for you back then?

It was challenging because nobody understood it back then. There was a big gap between my ideas and what people were hearing. I always try to stay very patient, taking the time to explain what is going on in order to create an understanding. Today, however, there is an audience as people have a lot more experience in modular instruments. It is so refreshing and exciting for me to gain this whole new audience, when there wasn’t even an audience the first time to speak of.

There is still a bit of a gap today, because not everybody is familiar with the Buchla. Don Buchla died last year, and I have a certain sense of responsibility to pass on some of my knowledge, even though you can’t buy a Buchla or a modular system anymore. This field is growing and evolving; when new designers get to know his ideas, it will help the evolution of the instrument.

I tried out some of the new instruments as I go to a lot of these shows, though I haven’t found anything yet that comes close to what I can do with the Buchla. But it’s getting closer; maybe there is something great out there. I don’t know everything, I’m new to this. I’m very excited to see so many young designers and young people interested in these machines. I have been a visiting artist at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Recently, we did a class in group improvisation: six different modular players, five students and myself playing at the same time. It was unbelievable; I had no idea you could do that. Things like this are so exciting for me.

Where does your strong drive to pass on Don Buchla’s knowledge come from?

I was there in the early days. Electronic music is not a new concept; it has been around for a hundred years. Buchla was somebody special who brought the possibilities forward in a big way. This was a man who had designed instruments his entire life, up till the day he died. He was a brilliant conceptual thinker. And I worked with him! For ten years, all I did was play the Buchla so I have a huge investment. I see a lot of kids today; they buy the gear and have the gear, but they don’t know how to play it. It is not about having it. It is all about spending time with the gear and getting to know it.

As a female, what was it like for you in those early days of electronic music?

Well, the funny thing is that now, they’re looking back historically and discovering that those at the origins of all this were often women! It is not about technology in this sense; it is more about the combination of art and technology. I’m an artist; even though I did solder machines in the beginning, I don’t concern myself with machines on the inside, more on the outside. That is a very organic relationship. I think men identify more with gear and machinery. However, there are more women in this today, and I think we are starting to see a critical mass. The fact that you are not the only woman in the room now gives women more confidence and it doesn’t matter what men think of them anymore. Even if we have more women doing this, it only still matters what we women think.

I always say that we are not trying to get into the boys’ club. We are not interested in trying to be men. We just want to be who we are, and we want that context of having women around and be able to talk about this with a fellow woman. I look at some of the electronic music magazines… if you look through these magazines, you’d still see women modeling a compressor or something else. I used to complain about this, because it really does insult the typical female reader. There is not enough representation of the brilliant women in this field. All these women just don’t have visibility, and that is all.

Do you think women will ever get this visibility?

Yes, I think they will. I tell women to be the best at what they do, be confident, and just do it. Claim your space and do it. I did a concert in New York that I had never done before; it was called Dame Electric, and it was all women! It was amazing!

These sorts of events with an all-women line up often bring along a lot of controversy, but an all-male line up is still seen as normal.

Yes, it’s a real ongoing issue. I actually think this issue is still around because at some point the girls got lazy. My generation, we were aware and we fought hard. We hated seeing how women got lazy after getting a lot of new advantages all of a sudden. Now we’re back and we’re fighting again. It is also generational to some extent. The older guys, they are the worst; the younger guys were brought up by enlightened women and they are not as boxed in. Don Buchla was a sexist, but he evolved away from that. It did take him fifteen years to get out. It was never my intention to prove men wrong; I was just doing what I loved. I ignored it, but it hurt sometimes.

You have become an inspiration to a lot of artists – and especially women – in electronic music. What advice would you give to the younger women in the industry?

Do not try to be men. Do your own thing by using your authentic voice. Be very good at what you do. You have to be better, to break through. You can’t show up and falter. Women have become better than men, because we have to be. Men are so much more relaxed, because they don’t have to constantly prove themselves. We do. To get your confidence, you have to be sure of your skills. Women are overqualified, but still deemed to be not as great as men at what we do. Like Gloria Steinem said: “I can’t wait for the day that women can be as mediocre as men and succeed.” Nobody is going to give you anything: you have to fight for it. A positive change that I’m noticing now as we are getting a sort of critical mass of women, is that we can help each other out. I can network with younger women, and I already know some women in high places. Ask each other what you need, and network effectively.

The misunderstanding here is that we hate men, but we love men. We have nothing against men. I don’t think men consciously blocked women out. They’re not consciously pushing us out, just like we are not consciously pushing them out. We are just looking for our own comfort zone, and our comfort zone is not being the only woman in the room. That’s also great about being 70 years old; I don’t have to deal with that sexual innuendo anymore. It is very relaxing. As a young woman, you are unfortunately often still looked at in that sexual way.

Are there any artists that inspired you when you were starting out?

One of the greatest inspirations for me was a woman named Ilse Bing. She was a photographer; when I met her she was already 80 years old. I always felt like photography was a technological art form. A chemist, she made her own paper and chemicals. She was a real scientist in this field. She was a breakthrough woman. Actually, not that I’m trying to be sexist about this, but it’s the same situation here; you will find that women were the ones who advanced the art of photography. There were men too, of course, but there were definitely various great women who played an important role. Ilse was one of them, so she was a big inspiration for me.

Was Ilse an inspiration in the way it empowered you in your own field, or did her photography work directly inspire your work?

Both. We did a piece together: she wrote the lyrics for a two-piece called Lumière. She also did a drawing for it. The thing about Ilse was that she was so excited and energetic. All she cared about was art. Like when I would come visit her, she would say: “Suzanne! Tell me about your work! How is it going?” All I wanted to talk about was my boyfriend, my problems, that kind of stuff. She just wanted to talk about my work. Ilse was an artist until the end of her life, at the age of 99.

What about musicians that inspired you?

Most of my heroes in music were classical. With performing musicians Glenn Gould was a very big influence on me; I think because he played Bach very precisely. It kind of had that electronic sensibility, because his rhythm was unique. He never tried to finesse the rhythm like the others by putting a lot of emphasis on things to make you feel it more. He would let the music speak for itself and didn’t get in the way of it.

You stopped playing the Buchla for a while; what drew you back to it?

I did a release of archival music with the Finders Keepers label. They asked me to release some old stuff, but I wondered why anyone would want to hear it. The album came out, and all of a sudden I was in the public eye with the electronics again! I wasn’t aware at all about what was going on; it felt strange. I always say I came out from under a rock. There was this whole renaissance going on when I came out. Kids loved vinyl and cassettes again all of a sudden, which seems so absurd to those of us who actually had vinyl and cassettes. They wanted to go back and see what was there. The first time we, Don Buchla and I, did this, it felt like we had missed the boat. Now that everyone is looking back again, it feels like we are getting a second chance, which I hadn’t thought we would get.

Do you think the timing was not right back then?

It was more complicated commercially. There were all these small companies, like Buchla. It was hard to keep a business going so people would have to make concessions to commercialism. That’s never a good thing. Buchla made a deal with CBS, because he thought maybe there was money in what he was doing. Yet, he always refused to compromise; he would never put together a keyboard like they wanted him to do. He held his ground and said “this is not a keyboard instrument, it is something new.” Electronic music is a huge area, there’s everything in it, but the part that we care about is quite small.

What was it like being in the public eye again all of a sudden?

It took me a while to figure it out. When I talked to Andy from Finders Keepers, I even told him not to put my name anywhere in the release. I didn’t want anybody to know that I was doing this, because my fans would get upset. That’s how it started.

After that, I started to get invited, and then Don Buchla talked me into buying an instrument. He called me one day and said: “Look, if you’re ever thinking of going back to this, now is the time. I’m going to sell the company.” I wasn’t really interested, but I played for years, so I kind of had to. We made a deal, I got the instrument, and I didn’t even touch it for a year. And at some point even though I didn’t want to play it, it just took over!

Then Moogfest asked me to play the Buchla, in honor of Don. I did it just to honor him. I said: “This is the last thing I’m doing, and I’m not doing anything else! I’m doing this one thing for Don, and that’s it!” I really felt that way, most of all because the Buchla drives me crazy sometimes.

And now you’re back!

Yes, and it feels great!

Thank you Suzanne, for a wonderful and inspirational afternoon.